A glimmer of hope on gun control

Story highlights

  • Julian Zelizer: Activists should accept Susan Collins' gun control bill even if it isn't perfect
  • He sees parallel to Civil Rights Act of 1957, which paved way for more significant steps

Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and a New America fellow. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society." The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)The first sign of hope in the gun control debate in many years came this week as Sen. Susan Collins, a Maine Republican, offered legislation that would prohibit people who are on the "no fly" and other surveillance lists from purchasing guns. Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer told reporters, "There may be a glimmer of hope now" since the proposal seemed to be a "step in the right direction."

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Unlike almost any other legislation that has been floated on Capitol Hill, Collins' measure seems to have some bipartisan support, although the odds against it are significant, especially given the National Rifle Association's opposition.
    Many proponents of gun control will certainly feel that this bill is less than satisfactory. The legislation is a far cry from the kind of comprehensive gun controls that they have been fighting for over the past few years. But in politics it is important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the possible.
    If Collins can push her measure through the House of Representatives and Senate, with President Barack Obama's support, it would mark the first significant legislative breakthrough since 1994 when President Bill Clinton obtained support for an assault weapons ban (that the Republican Congress failed to renew in 2004).
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    Highlighting the importance of the issue of gun control, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia is leading a sit-in of Democrats on the House floor.
    When the Senate voted down four bills in the aftermath of the horrific mass killing in Orlando, much of the nation was stunned. Yet few were surprised. "I'm mortified by today's vote, but I'm not surprised by it. The National Rifle Association has a vise-like grip on this place," lamented Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who sponsored one of the failed bills. Every single time the nation has lived and mourned through a killing spree of this sort, the NRA and its allies have blocked legislation from passing.
    The power of the NRA within Congress has become the prime example of how campaign donations, interest group politics and partisanship converge to prevent elected officials from dealing with one of the major issues of our time. Republicans have been overwhelmingly opposed to gun control. There are numerous high-profile Democrats who have not been much better, though in recent years support within their party has been picking up in favor of regulation.
    The President, who has helped to push his party toward a more affirmative stance on gun control, has frequently lamented the broken state of affairs. "There is no other advanced nation on Earth that tolerates multiple shootings on a regular basis and considers it normal," Obama told the comedian Marc Maron on a recent podcast. In January, he warned, "Each time this comes up, we are fed the excuse that common-sense reforms like background checks might not have stopped the last massacre, or the one before that, or the one before that, so why bother trying. I reject that thinking."
    If Collins' effort is to succeed, a model can be found in 1957 when then-Senate Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson helped to move a civil rights bill through Congress. Back in the 1950s, a coalition of Southern Democrats and Republicans were the roadblock to the major issue of the day.
    As Robert Caro has recounted in his brilliant history of this period, while Johnson believed that even though the toothless legislation fell far short of the goals that civil rights activists were struggling to achieve, passing the bill would be the first time since Reconstruction that Congress had enacted legislation on this issue. If he could get Southerners to live with a civil rights bill, he believed he would be able to get more.
    When Congress passed the Civil Rights Act of 1957, activists complained. Democratic Sen. Wayne Morse of Oregon confided to Sen. Herbert Lehman of New York that "I am fed up with the argument that the civil rights bill the Congress passed is better than no bill at all. I deny that premise." This bill, in the eyes of many liberals, was a half-loaf that was inadequate and insufficient and would stifle progress for further reform. But in the end the civil rights movement continued to expand in scale and scope. As Johnson predicted, the legislation of 1957 became a foundation for bolder reforms.
    Susan Collins has stepped forward at a critical moment. We face a major political challenge that keeps costing us lives. Politicians have repeatedly proven unable to deal with the ongoing crisis of weakly regulated gun markets. Public opinion continues to get trumped by the power of interest group politics. With people dying in nightclubs and schools, with all Americans continually at risk, some kind of action is urgent.
    Collins has offered a first step. This vote will be a significant test to see whether a bipartisan coalition can finally overcome intransigence and whether gun control activists are willing to seize the potential for an incremental breakthrough, even when much more is needed.
    If this measure passes, there will be a huge amount of work still to be done. Gun control activists will need to continue building support for this issue and creating pressure against opponents.
    It makes sense that Lewis, a veteran of the civil rights movement, is leading the sit-in on the House floor calling on the leadership to allow for a vote on the bill. "We have been quiet for too long," the congressman said.
    As was the case with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the final breakthrough will only occur when grass-roots activists bring enough pressure to bear on Congress so that inaction no longer seems like a politically viable option.